Class Seating Arrangement – not what you thought

Lately I came upon a couple of discussions on Twitter about classroom structure and its arrangement. Parts of these discussions coincided with steps I had just taken in my class regarding the seating arrangement, and as I saw the issue was becoming more and more complex, I decided to try and paint a somewhat more complete picture of the issue of seating arrangements in the classroom.

It starts off somewhat dryly, but gets better as we go along. So, hang in there.

According to the prescriptions of the Israeli Ministry of Education, classrooms constructed after 2008 must be atleast 53 sq. meters large, in order to contain a class of up to 40 students.

This is the equivalent of 1.32 sq. meter perstudent in the classroom. This includes, or course, the student’s desk,which is about 0.3 sq. meter in size. This leaves just one square meter for every student in the classroom.

What does this look like in my classroom?

The class is about 56 sq. meters in size, and in this home class (10th grade) I have only 32 students (as opposed to 38 in the previous class). This means that each student has 1.75 square meters (1.44 if you subtract the table). That is, without the teacher taking up any space…

Even in these luxurious conditions, the feeling in the class is crowded. This is especially prominent during breaks and whenever I attempt to go between the desks, talk to the students and check their work. I can only assume, that for the girls (especially) this is one of the factors creating a non-secure atmosphere in regards to contact with other students, even when no one has any intention whatsoever of harassing.

However, crowdedness is not the topic of this post. As the picture shows, and as anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows, in order to seat thirty something students in a classroom, some of them will have to sit in the back. This means that some of the students are located seven meters from me when I am teaching (and more importantly, from the whiteboard). This can have one of two effects – either the students in the back are disengaged from the lesson and happy with it, as there is almost no chance that the teacher will ever get to them; or they would actually want to be part of the lesson (as is happily the case in my class), in which case they are highly unsatisfied with the seating arrangement, which becomes an issue that refuses to die, inflicting on both the atmosphere and the studying itself.

For all of these reasons, and also because I am personally a fan of changes and of experimentation in my teaching, I have played around quite a lot with seating arrangements in the classroom. In my former class (which, as mentioned, had 38 students in it) I tried a couple of different things:

None of these arrangements actually worked. I personally like the U-shape arrangement, because it allows for direct communication between the students, and turns everyone’s focus to the center. But in reality, mostly due to a lack of the right habits, it mostly created negative interactions between the students, and the necessity of seating the class in two U-s took away most of the advantages.

The arrangement in sequential rows without gaps between the desks was good in theory, at least for me as a teacher – almost complete control of what was going on in the class, relatively easy mobility from both sides of the rows and between them. But for the students this meant too wide a detour in order to reach their place, or the garbage can, or their friends, and quickly enough the tables moved away from one another.

This year I decided to work more moderately, and to try and take advantage of the fact that I had fewer students in my class:

Breaking the lines

It didn’t help. It was still too far away for the students in the back,and they had a really hard time with the diagonal arrangement. I wasn’t therewith them for the first period, and they were convinced that the classroom wasjust in a mess, and straightened the tables back.

So, what can I do? As usual when I don’t have an answer (and sometimes even when I do), I decided to drop the problem on my students’ heads. This way ,at least, they couldn’t complain, and I would have the privilege of draping the whole move with pretty words of democratic education, and teaching responsibility, while the whole time I am just looking for a way to close this issue up for good (no, not really).

So, I showed them a map of the class with the current arrangement [image 1], and gave every three students an empty map of the class [image 2] and a page with tables to cut out [image 3] (all to scale, of course).

I asked them to try and be unconventional and think about solutions that I, as a teacher, would be unable to think of.

The following are their suggestions:

Several things stand out at first glance: A – it is quite difficult to be creative in our class’s arrangement; B – the most important consideration for the students is being able to see the whiteboard properly, which is evident in the lack of an option for sitting in groups; C – the second most important consideration is the location of the desks in relation to the air conditioner located on the rear wall of the class (I’ll get back to this later on); D – students are many times much more conservative than their teacher (I already knew that, but somehow it succeeds in surprising me anew every time). An interesting exception to this, for those of you who looked hard at the pictures, is the bottom right proposal, which includes a platform to raise the rows furthest from the whiteboard.

The ballot form

The next step was, of course, to vote:

The students’ response was that voting could never work, since they would each vote for the proposal made by their own group. This means that the students’ basic assumption was that personal ego and competitiveness will prevent them from making matter-of-fact judgments about the different proposals.

If anyone wondered about the state of education towards democratic beliefs and values in Israeli high schools…

Results of the vote

The results, as you can see, showed a somewhat different picture.

And this is what it actually looks like:

The resulting arrangement

At this point I was in for a surprise.

 First of all, suddenly there was a feeling that the class was much larger (and to all interior decorators out there – yes, I know that the arrangement of a room has an impact on its feeling, but the effect here was very strong and immediate). Secondly – the corridor that allowed me to move easily around the room also created a very strong echo when I talked. And last but not least – it turned out that still, many students were feeling uncomfortable with their seating.

At this stage Efrat Furst (she writes very interestingly about research informed education – follow her! To her website) introduced me to Tom Sherrington‘s blogpost praising seating in rows. Tom’s blog has since become an important thought-provoking source for me, but reading this post left me with contradicting reactions, which may be related to two different identities that often clash within me – that of the professional teacher and that of the educator.

As a professional teacher, I can often identify with the claims raised in the post – when the students are sitting in rows, it is possible for me (at least in theory) to see everyone’s faces and make eye contact with them. More importantly, the students can (again, in theory) see me. Tom’s main argument there is that it’s human, meaning – sitting one in front of the other. As proof he brings pictures from 19th and 21st century schools, and of students at a lecture. So yes, standing in front of rows of students has its advantages, and in this context – it is clear that the center of gravity of the lesson lies in what the teacher has to say, or in the exchange between him (or more likely – her) and the students. So obviously, if students wish to understand the lesson and to learn, they are required to look straight at the teacher and listen to them. This way I can also see what the students are doing while I am talking, or when they are given an assignment to work on. I can walk between them, see individual work and correct it (assuming, of course, there was room left for passages between the students’ desks). But – and for me this is a very important but – this seating arrangement has several very problematic implications. If the center of gravity of the lesson lies in the discourse between the teacher and the students, then many of the students are liable to draw two conclusions:

  1. When the teacher is talking with one student, it is of no importance to all other students. The noisiest moments in my lessons are those when I am answering individual questions.
  2. When the center of gravity of the lesson is found in the gap between the whiteboard and the teacher’s desk, anything other students have to say regarding the lesson is of no importance either.

Well yes, I assume that there are didactic options for dealing with these two points. But in my view, any additional coping mechanism I need to add to my lesson consumes time and energy, which I am already short on. More importantly, even if I am able to cope with this problem in regards to lesson management, the underlying message of this situation is well-received: the teacher – the adult –the leader – is important; the rest of you are not. This is an authoritarian and anti-democratic message, which for me, as a civics teacher, creates quite a difficulty when trying to educate my students to hold democratic values and beliefs such as the equality of all, the importance of active citizenship, the need to curb the power of the government and others.

Another argument that is raised in the post is that sitting in groups (as an example. I experienced it, as mentioned, in a U-shaped seating) has negative implications on the lesson, which derive from the interactions between the students. Indeed, it is quite complicated when the students actually turn to one another and relate to each other. It definitely makes it harder for the teacher to be at the center of attention, and there is no doubt that for students sitting with their backs to the teacher, it is often very hard to be part of the lesson. However, the ability to work effectively in groups is not a natural given. Especially so in the super-competitive and individualist world we all live in. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that none of my students suggested groups as a seating option. This is while the ability to communicate and to work with one another is one of the most important skills that we, as teachers, need to impart on our students (sadly, working as solo adults in classes of 30 to 40 children, we are often not very skilled at this ourselves). Therefore, the mere fact that a certain seating arrangement creates negative interactions is not a reason for giving up sitting and working in groups, but rather a reason to develop teaching and learning methods that are more suitable to collaborative group work. And I know that there are those who are working at developing such methods.

Bottom line is, I don’t have an ultimate solution. At the moment, in order to cope with the inconvenience many students feel with their seat in class, I resort to changing seats every several weeks. But this also comes at a price. I knowcfirst hand that a permanent seat in class has much value for many students, especially for those who have a hard time feeling secure and safe in their classroom.

Despite all this, I do have three conclusions to draw from this saga:

The question, as happens in oh-so-many discussions on education, goes back to the roots – what is the job of the teacher facing the class? Is it to transmit the material? To teach skills? To educate? This dilemma is evident in the simple fact that we are teachers working in the education system. And obviously, the answer is that my job is both this and that and the other. But what are the priorities? Which goal does society want me to place in front of the other goals, when I face my students? The larger the gap between the requirements of modern society and the frozen structure of schools grows, so this question will become more acute and will increasingly demand an unequivocal answer.

Apparently, there can be no one ideal seating arrangement. Just like there is no ideal lesson plan or any one ideal set of traits for a teacher. In this sense, the (partial) solution for classes is furniture that is modular – an abilityto change the arrangement of the class easily and quickly, so that the class may be adapted to various and changing needs – didactical, pedagogical and educational.

This might be a good time to return to an earlier remark I made regarding the airconditioner in class. The unit is located in the back of the class, somewhat left of center. One of the reasons many students voted for the seating arrangement that was chosen was they thought this way, no student will have to sit directly under it. This was also one of the reasons many students are disappointed with the chosen arrangement, as the airconditioner isn’t actually where the gap  between the tables is. I believe this is a good example of the need to work harder at satisfying students basic physical needs, if we want them to become better learners. i believe Maslow has proven his point enough for us to listen. In any case, in order to try and alleviate the problem with the airconditioner, my students and I tried to make good use of the Hanukka vacation, and met in class today to draw on the walls and disperse the cool air from the airconditioner a little better around class.

Lastly – sanctifying the existing order because it has worked for two-hundred years is not a solution. Ironically, Sherrington’s post is named ‘TheTimeless Wisdom of Sitting in Rows’. A bit funny, taking into account the fact that schools as we know them have only been in existence for a couple of hundred years.

  • This is an updated and slightly revised version of the post I wrote in my Hebrew blog about a month ago. The original post can be found here

In Conclusion

Featured

Finally, after nearly a month, they were caught. Two of my pupils, who for several weeks have been entering classes they don’t belong to, and whistling mid-class. One teacher succeeded in catching them red-handed, and brought them to my manager for a hearing. It was a harsh talk, and it included a real threat not to let them finish the year. And they’re seniors and all. But as difficult as it was for me to thing they would not graduate together with the rest of the class, I was relieved that this story finally came to an ending.

But the sense of relief was short-lived, for immediately after the talk with the pupils my manager asked me to stay in the room with him, and reprimanded me for not being as involved in the story as I should have been, letting it go on for nearly a month. He said that if I had only set aside some time the issue could have been dealt with long ago, and then we wouldn’t be forced to threaten the kids they won’t graduate.

I went home severely agitated, and decided that I wasn’t going to put up with this any longer. You give everything you have, never stop thinking, trying, planning how to do things better, and in the end, get shouted at. That’s it, tomorrow morning I’m letting my manager know that I’ve had enough. I’ll finish this school year with my pupils, of course, but that’s it. I’ll try to get back into academia, maybe go in a completely different direction, but of this I’ve had enough.

And then I realized that tomorrow was Monday, and my manager won’t be at school. And how can I threaten to resign if he isn’t even there?

Hold on. Tomorrow isn’t Monday, but Friday. And it’s Hanukah vacation anyways. And clearly, my pupils can’t go in to classes they don’t belong to, since all the teachers know their pupils by name and by face…

That’s the dream that woke me up a couple of days ago.

You don’t need Freud to reveal the guilt that I feel as an educator for not doing enough to allow my pupils to grow, learn, mature, to be happy.

And no, this says nothing special about me as an educator. These are sentiments that I know many of my colleagues share. Since this, perhaps, is one of the aspects in which the teaching profession is one of the toughest – you can never tell yourself that you’ve really succeeded, that you’ve completed your role.

But wait. Before you explain to me that I’m wrong, that other professions are much harder, that in return for my difficulties I’m getting excellent working conditions, that no one forced me to do this job…

I have no need for your pity. Nor am I trying to compare myself to anyone else. My choice of this profession was done freely and out of a number of options, and most days I am thankful for having the privilege of being a teacher and an educator. Despite all that you’re going to read here, the bottom line is that I truly believe there is no profession more exciting, more satisfying or as meaningful as education.

But our education system is in trouble. And it’s not because of the teachers working in it, but because its structure and functions are inadequate to the needs of 21st century society. And what I seek to do in this post is to shed light on one aspect of this inadequacy, and to offer a different, perhaps more radical point of view, as to what needs to be done in order to provide our children with high-quality education.

So how many hours does a teacher truly work?

Last summer I was approached by the economic section of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation to respond to the issue of the vacations teachers have. The clip,  which to my great surprise received quite a large number of viewings, came out – like any three-minute clip attempting to tackle a serious and complex issue – somewhat superficial and more aggressive than i thought it would, but it touched on a real question, which kept my busy on a daily basis throughout the passing year – how many hours does a teacher work, but for real?

The issue of school vacations is obviously not new, and arises anew every summer. It is related, of course, to the question of teachers’ salaries, but also to much broader issues of the organization of the system as a whole, as I shall attempt to show here.

As an educator, dealing with the number of hours I work is rather annoying – after all, education is a matter for the heart, not the clock. It is all about relationships, about quality and not quantity. But the two cannot really be disconnected, both from my point of view as an employee, and from the point of view of the pupils and the education they receive. So even though it isn’t the most important thing, and although I would rather deal with the how and why, I decided – early in the previous school year – to keep track of the number of hours I work every day, divided into types of activities.

So, what did I find there?

During the year in which I carried out the count, between october 26 2016 (which was the first school day after a vacation, which allowed me to prepare the Excel file for monitoring my work hours) and october 25 2017, I worked 2,090 hours.

365

If we divide this number by the number of days there are in a year, we’ll get 5 hours and 42 minutes of work each and every day. But you’re right – such a count isn’t relevant to anything.

So, if we divide this number by the number of days in which I was supposed to work according to the school year, we get 11 hours and 48 minutes of work in each of the 177 days of the school year. However, last year I stayed at home with a sick child 4 days, and took two more sick days for myself. Assuming that no one thinks I was supposed to work during these days, we get 171 days during which I was supposed to be working. This results in 12 hours and 12 minutes of work every day. By the way, if you just add to the 177 days of the school year 104 days of weekend vacation, you’ll end up with 84 days of vacation I get as a teacher. By all accounts outrageous.

monthly

But let’s take a deeper look at things. According to the Israeli National Insurance website, in the examined period the were 252 work days. If we subtract from this 12 days of vacation, which are the minimum required by law (before taking into account seniority and other factors), we get 240 days during which I was supposed to work last year, if the government were to equalize teachers’ vacations with those customary in the rest of the economy.

ספירת-ימי-עבודה

So, if we divide my 2,090 work hours over the past year by the number of days a “normal” employee works, we get only 8 hours and 42 minutes every work day. Whoopee! I’m just like everyone else!!!

Just a couple more figures, before we take a look at the contents of this work.

Over the past year I worked, on average, 3/4 of an hour every Friday, and in general I worked on every third Friday.

Saturdays? Over the past year I worked in 28 of the 52 sabbaths, and on average I worked one hour and 40 minutes every Saturday.

And again – don’t respond with ‘there are plenty of employees who work on weekends. No one should be forced to work on weekends, and it is our responsibility as a society to make sure that is made possible.

Now – why is all of this important at all?

by-assignment

According to the collective agreement between the teachers’ union and the Ministries of Finance and Education, a teacher’s FTE is composed as follows:

teacher-position

Looking back once more at the actual results, we see the following:

365

Several conclusions stand out:

  1. The share of actual teaching hours is half of what the collective agreement defines (and even more, since in counting teaching hours I included individual hours as teaching hours).
  2. The share of hours dedicated to preparing materials and to checking exams and papers is twice as allocated by the agreement.
  3. The share of hours dedicated to meetings and teacher learning is almost 4% more than planned for.
  4. There are assignments the collective agreement doesn’t take into account at all.

Oh, one last important piece of data – I performed all (or nearly all) of the teaching hours i was allocated. Honest.

What, in my opinion, can we learn from all of this?

  • It is not possible (and in my opinion not desired, either, but that’s a story for another post) to increase the number of teaching hours, since every frontal teaching hour requires more than two hours of overhead. The only way to do this, if we still want children to learn more hours yearly, is to increase the number of teachers in the system.
  • Teachers work much more than the general public believes. And that is fine. As the calculations show, teachers don’t necessarily work more hours than employees in other professions. The biggest problem is the manner in which teachers’ work is organized along the year, with no flexibility at all – for the teacher herself and for the system alike.
  • Another thing, that doesn’t arise from the data but I find hard to dispute – there is great variance between teachers in the composition and nature of their work. There is a difference between teaching disciplines, between teacher roles, stages of education, etc. But all teachers work hard, and a lot. If only the school, in collaboration with local PTAs, had flexibility in determining the composition of teachers’ assignments to adjust between those who need more frontal hours and less overhead, and those who need the opposite; between those who excel in individual teaching and those who are wonderful lecturers, the aggregate working hours of all teachers in the school could be utilized much more effectively.

So, is it really a matter of quality, not quantity?

When I am forced, in order to fulfill the requirements of my position, to work many hours at home well beyond formal work hours;

when the overwhelming feeling is of an endless chase after assignments;

when it is unclear what are a teacher’s precise areas of responsibility, leaving everything to the responsibility of the teacher;

and when the bureaucratic demands – reports, meetings, teacher’s learning… continually grow in time requirements, continuously sending a message of distrust in the teacher’s ability to carry out her job,

then it becomes clear from where comes the guilt. It is clear why teachers feel unable to reach all of their pupils. It is clear why parents feel, that the education their children receive is inadequate. Because it’s not just a feeling – we, the teachers, find it more and more difficult to successfully carry out our job, and it is all our children who suffer from this.

True, this tracking of work hours in anecdotal, and I am far from claiming to represent such a large public. No individual teacher can, and that is why a widespread, national survey of teachers’ work hours is required. Sadly, it seems that none of those responsible for the direction of the education system – neither the ministries of education and finance, nor the teachers’ union – have an interest in conducting such a field study, and they prefer the status quo, the bickering over this addition or another to teachers’ salaries, which – important as it is – has no real chance of changing the grave situation our education system is currently in.

So, I’m done counting work hours. Just like before I started counting, my main occupation is with relationships, interpersonal connections, the welfare and wellbeing of my pupils. Just like before I started counting, it is clear to me that if only I had more time, I could have done so much more. The guilt remains. But so does the immense satisfaction from this job, the happiness I find in working with teenagers, and the belief that despite it all, I am able to do something, small as it may be, to make this world a better place.

Preparing for the Next Memorial Day

With each year that goes by, the Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars becomes harder and harder for me.

And my sons are still young, I still have a few good years ahead before having to lose sleep over them again.

And yet, each year the morning of the Memorial Day fills my eyes and throat with tears, hotter and more searing than those of the previous year.

Only this year I realized, through conversations with students and during the siren, what it is that tears me up so from within. It’s that I’m not thinking of fallen friends (I’ve been almost unbelievably lucky, in Israeli reality, and have yet lost any close relatives or friends to war), but of my students standing in front of me. Of these overgrown kids, who on the next Memorial Day might already be part of our never-ending list of failures. Part of an accusing, shaming list – you were unable to stop it, unable to protect us.

I stand in front of them and feel ashamed. Ashamed for the harsh world we are sending them out to, for the fact that we raise them to protect us, after we failed to protect them. Ashamed for not having done everything that is humanly possible to protect my children, our children.

I stand in front of them and ask myself what more can I do to better prepare them for what lies ahead? How could I teach them at one and the same time to take responsibility, to contribute, to risk themselves for others, and maybe even get hurt, or hurt others, and on the other hand to remain human beings, to maintain their critical thinking, their aspiration for peace and for change? How might I educate them to carry out, on the one hand, the most decisive and most absolute of orders, and on the other hand to keep seeing the complexity, the whole, to see reality with all its shades of grey?

We teach children of the “other”, of the ability to see and understand them as a whole, separate, human being, and then send them out to fight all who are “others”. I so desperately want to continue and believe our ability – and theirs – to contain this contradiction, but the reality of these past few weeks – including the harsh, zealous, and confrontational discourse that developed among my teacher colleagues – places big question marks on this belief.

I sit and write, knowing that at any moment I might receive word that another name was added to my list of shame and guilt. At this moment it is only a question of when and who. But the only question that really bothers me these days is, will we know how to prevent the next names? Will we know how to prevent the alienation and hatred among ourselves; will we learn how to see the other first of all as a human being, and only then as the “other”?

I dare not pray for peace at this moment in time. All I dare ask is that the next Memorial Day will not be harder for me than the one that had passed.

To read this post in Hebrew

What did you learn at school today, my dear little child?

– Oh dad, you’ve got to hear this: today my teacher taught me how to lie!

– That’s great, son! How did she manage to do this?

– Well, it took me a while toget it, because it’s no simple stuff, but she just gave us lots of examples, she actually dictated a list we had to memorize, and she said that every day she will test us, to see if we studied properly. Here, take a look at the list:

  1. Don’t trust us adults. We’re unpredictable. We might get up one day, decide we’ve had it with your behavior, and make a scapegoat out or you.
  2. Always try to lie. Teachers don’t punish you for lying, and that’s even if you do get caught.
  3. Your best strategy is to make your teacher think that your weak students. This way you’ll also get the most help, and they’ll also bump up your grade in the end, so you don’t “get screwed”.
  4. Got caught doing something wrong? deny it all. They don’t believe you? deny again. If you deny just enough, and persistently enough, the teacher won’t be able to do anythink to you.
  5. Do you smoke? too bad. Just make sure you do so in places, where teacher make sure not to find themselves, because we know you smoke there. If we catch you, we’ll have to expel you. And that’s something we really don’t want to do. You still managed to get yourselves caught? go back to 4.

– That’s very impressive, son. Do you think you’ll be able to memorize so much material?

– Sure, dad, cause you didn’t wait for 6: always carry your cheat-sheets with you…

Target Language – Teenagerish

I’m a teacher. And I’m a translator. Well, for starters it’s a great second income, and as is well known – every teacher needs one.

But this morning it suddenly struck me: there is a deep connection between my two professional fields. Of course, both of them surround words. But that’s nothing to write home about. In a much deeper sense, my work as a teacher involves many of the skills I require as a translator. In fact, my objective as a teacher is to translate the knowledge for my students into a language they know. Because the idea, both in translation work and in the classroom, is that the words you choose are importance, the order in which you choose to place them is significant, punctuation marks matter. Alternatively, in class, it is the rhythm and tone of speech. In both fields you have to be attentive to the needs of the customer (oh, how much I hate the use of this word in connection with students!), to try and understand in advance how best to deliver the message from the source language to the target language. In my case, the target language is Teenagerish: it has its own grammar, its own internal logic, and its own irregular verbs that change at a very very rapid pace. These changes make Teenagerish the hardest language to learn, but for me – as a translator, they also make it the most challenging and enjoyable language to learn.

And yet, there is one important difference (well there are several, but one that is relevant here) between translation work and teaching: as a tranlsator, I have no need for the customer to eventually understand the source language. As a teacher, my ultimate goal is not merely to understand Teenagerish, but to enable my students to reach a stage, where they are fluent in Adultish.

Educating is Believing

Educating is believing.

It’s about believing, that even if youd can’t see the results, something of you touches something of them.

It’s about believing, that in each child and in each teenager that you meet there is a spark, dormant and hidden as may be, a spark that if only gets blown by the right wind, could ignite in a great flame.

It’s about believing in the ability to improve, to change, to grow.

In many ways, education is a kind of religion: there’s something out there, not always comprehensible, almost undetectable and resisting definition, that you just know – with blind faith – that is beyond all reason.

To educate is to know, that no matter how much of a role model you may be, none of your students will be like you. And this is not a byproduct – it’s the desired result.

Because what matters the most is not what you gave, but what they choose to take.

Educating is believing, that change is possible; it’s believing in the children, that they are capable of change.

If you lack the power to believe – you have no business educating.